The ace of Anabare Bay

While browsing through the records of student pilots at a local flying school, I noticed that many had not gone solo until after 15 hours of dual instruction. Some were up to 25 hours before being sent off alone. Intrigued, I talked to instructors from other flying schools and found out that 15 hours to solo was considered normal, with one student reaching 40 hours of dual before solo. Fifty years ago, students flying Tiger Moths were solo between 6 and 10 hours. This included military training where students were failed if they not gone solo by 12 hours.

So why the difference between the time to solo in 1950 and today? Certainly there is no marked change in the syllabus between then and now. Effects of controls, stalling, climbing and descending and the various types of landings are unchanged in substance. Spinning was part of the syllabus in those days – but not now. Cessnas and Pipers have replaced the ancient British-designed Tiger Moths and Chipmunks. The American built aircraft are easier to fly, and their handling speeds much the same. The Tiger Moth was flown at 58 knots over the hedge compared with the Cessna 150 at 54 knots. The open cockpit of the Moths, with a Gosport Tube between instructor and student, made for sore throats from constant yelling. The electric intercom between the side by side occupants in Cessnas makes instructing quite easy. Besides, in the Cessna, the white face of an airsick student gives ample warning of a “technicolour yawn!” Not so in a Tiger – that is until the smell wafts through the Gosport. At least the student was behind the instructor, and a judicious touch on the rudder would deflect the stream to one side. Wrong rudder and the hapless student had the unenviable job of cleaning the mess from the fabric.

Tiger Moth

The Tiger Moth, hardly a forgiving airplane, but often flown solo in under 10 hours.

The Tiger had no flaps. This required better judgement on final approach than with Cessnas and Warriors which have variable flap settings. The elevator trim wheel on the American machines, along with a useful artificial horizon, directional gyro, VSI, and easy to read fuel gauges, makes in-flight handling a breeze. Compare this to the mechanical cheese-cutter elevator trim, the 1935 bank and skid needles, no artificial horizon, glass sight fuel gauge on top of the biplane wing, and tailwheel characteristics of the Tiger and its contemporaries. Let us not forget the incredible noise level with an open cockpit machine – not to mention misting of goggles and a soaked to the skin student flying in rain.

Lose the ASI in the Moth, and you could judge the speed by the sound of the wind whistling through the wires. With the Cessna the same equivalent safety could be guessed by knowing the descent attitude – different in a Moth because of the instructor’s head blocking the view and tears streaming from your eyes as you leant out into the slipstream to judge your sideslip angle if high (no flap). No heating in a Moth or Chippie, so thick wooly bulls (padded flying suits) and gloves were needed. Ever try map-reading in an 80 knot gale with gloves on?

Lack of radios meant that a good lookout in the Moths and Chippies was vital. Contrast that with the babble of R/T at GAAP aerodromes where ATC reign supreme and the accent is now on radio alerting rather than the much-scorned see and be seen concept of separation and avoidance.

Not so long ago, instructors taught the pupils to fly close circuits and glide approaches. Spacing was commonsense and power was used to adjust a misjudged undershoot. At RAAF training bases, the Tigers would use the grass and the circuit was shared with faster and heavier Wirraways and the occasional Dakota or Mustang. It was considered bad form to fly wide circuits and harsh words from the instructor reminded you to keep the circuit tight and concise. Contrast this with now, where inexperienced instructors, some with barely 300 hours in their own log books, have been known to encourage huge circuits worthy of a Boeing in order to “allow the student time to settle down” as one 20 year old instructor informed me.

Perhaps the fault lies with the flying schools that compete for ever fewer students using new instructors just out of CPL training. Pity the poor Grade 3 just out of instructors’ course. He or she has been brought up on a diet of wide circuits, long powered approaches, stalling practice at ridiculously high altitudes for Cessnas, and anything over 30 degrees is a steep turn. The good news is that 100 hours later, he becomes a “Senior Grade 3,” but still needing the close supervision that rarely occurs.

Does the CFI inspect student records regularly to check why the long time to solo? From my experience this is doubtful, as dual hours mean more revenue to a school already on a shoestring.

If there is one prime reason why students take longer to solo now, than when this writer learned to fly in the early Fifties, then it must be instructor experience. Allowing for tricks of memory, I recall that in those days many instructors were experienced ex-wartime types. Or if not, they had over a 1000 hours before doing an instructors’ course. The current instructor manual, first published by the Department of Civil Aviation over 40 years ago, has changed little in content with succeeding revisions. The syllabus for training allowed just under eight hours to first solo. The introductory page reads:

“It is an acceptable principle that in the early stages of training, instruction should be restricted to simple manoeuvres and no attempt made to teach really precise flying until the student has done enough solo to gain confidence.”

It is difficult for a 250 hour instructor to evaluate exactly what is an imprecise but safe standard in a student. Judging that difference, particularly in circuits and landings, could mean an additional 5-10 log book hours penalty borne by the student’s bank account.

As I have illustrated, it certainly helps if the student has an experienced instructor from day one, and better still if the student is a gifted natural. It was my good fortune to fly with such a student, and this is how it happened.

In 1993 I was approached by a friend living on the island atoll of Nauru, to teach his son to fly. Nauru is a tiny independent republic just 27 miles south of the Equator and about 2000 miles southwest of Honolulu. The nearest neighbour is Tarawa (scene of a battle between the US marines and the Japanese) which is 375 miles east of Nauru.  The chart co-ordinates of Nauru are 175 degrees East Longitude and 000.25 South Latitude.

Nauru has its own airline called Air Nauru, which operates a single Boeing 737-400.

In common with many Pacific islands, Nauru is blessed with spectacular sunrises and sunsets, often against the backdrop of pink and gold, tall cumulus clouds. It takes just 20 minutes to drive around the whole island on a well made road. Surrounding the island is a reef and in places, a channel has been dynamited across the reef to allow fishermen access to the Pacific Ocean with its teeming food source of fish. A few minutes drive from the Menen Hotel, itself situated right on the sea, is Anabare Bay.

Anabare Bay

Anabare Bay, Nauru, home to one excellent pilot.

At mid-tide the Pacific rolls across the reef into Anabare Bay, which is a favourite fishing spot for the islanders and expats (Australians, and New Zealanders who work on the island). At high tide, the breakers over the now invisible reef, run out into gentle wavelets just a few feet from the remains of wartime Japanese bunkers that guard the coast. Shoals of small fish cascade from the breakers into the shallows, where sometimes you may see a lone Nauruan, well built with an easy relaxed manner, casting his nylon net to catch his evening meal. His name is Robbie, but to me, he is the Ace of Anabare Bay. Not because of his skills as a simple fisherman, but because he is the most natural and gifted pilot that I have flown with. His log book – if he still has it – shows a total of five flying hours. Of that, ten minutes is solo.

His family already had another son flying as a first officer in Air Nauru, and Robbie’s father had hoped that he would follow his brother into the airline. Robbie had no great ambitions in life beyond fishing and doing odd jobs. The family earned a small income from phosphate royalties from mining on their land, and like most island families whatever money came in was shared around. Air Nauru was crewed mainly by Australian pilots, with some Nauruan pilots as first officers. The government was keen to have an all Nauruan airline, and had indicated that it would be prepared to help towards the cost of training of suitably qualified trainee pilots. I was asked to assess Robbie for his aptitude for initially a PPL.

With some reluctance, Robbie agreed to travel to Melbourne where he had relatives living near Moorabbin Airport. I met him on arrival, and decided that a trial instructional flight would be the first move. He showed remarkable natural aptitude for flying a Warrior, and we quickly moved into climbing and descending, straight and level, with a few steep turns thrown in for good measure. All in forty five minutes. His look-out was excellent, and his voice deep and confident on the radio.

I delayed further flying for three weeks until Robbie had passed the Basic Aircraft Knowledge examination, and then we launched from Essendon to Point Cook, a former RAAF airfield 14 miles from Melbourne. The weather was fine, the wind calm, and best of all, we had the circuit and training area to ourselves. At Point Cook, the grass was green and mowed, with conditions well nigh perfect for ab-initio flying. I made the briefings brief, and over coffee at a local shopping centre, we discussed engine failures, glide approaches, radio and CTAF procedures. Diagrams of circuit procedures were drawn on McDonald’s serviettes, and we talked about how to ditch on the side of the swell if the engine conked out when using Runway 17 over the sea.

Point Cook airport

Point Cook, where a quick 4.8 hours of flying led to a solo.

Then it was back in the air to practice stalls in steep turns, incipient spin recoveries, limit turns for collision avoidance and fire drills. While Robbie listened courteously, and gave the right answers, I sometimes felt that his mind was a thousand miles away over the blue Pacific. Despite this feeling of mine, he could rip into an emergency limit turn and hold it on altitude perfectly. In the middle of a stall recovery, he would spot an Airbus going into Melbourne International 20 miles away and point it out to me. He didn’t know cumulus from cirrus, but that didn’t matter, yet.

The next day we flew circuits and bumps. He tucked in accurately downwind, and did glide approaches, bounced landing recoveries and go-arounds from the flare. His judgement was impeccable, speeds accurate, and all the time he kept his head swivelling for Cessnas in the sun. We broke for lunch of fish-n-chips and Coke at the RAAF canteen, then toured the RAAF Museum where I tried to impress him with stories of my flying Vampires so many years ago. Ever polite, he pretended to listen, but again I sensed a detached air that said the tide is coming in at Anabare Bay and the fish are on the move…

We taxied again, and as we lined up on the grass of  Point Cook’s Runway 17 Grass Right, I marvelled at the sheer good fortune of having such a talented student pilot and an aerodrome all to ourselves. Circuits again, engine failures after take-off, aim for that fishing boat to ditch alongside, flapless landings, landings with a failed ASI. Greaser after greaser with perfect recoveries from my deliberate bounce simulations.

An hour later, I climbed from the Warrior and said, “Off you go for a solo circuit.” Robbie gave me a faintly surprised look, shrugged his shoulders and off he went. From behind, his take off was arrow straight, and though by now the sea breeze was stirring the windsock to life, he must have picked the drift because his track was straight. I watched him turn downwind while still climbing to 1000 ft, hoping that a nearby buzzing Beechcraft would not cut him off in the circuit. On base, his glide approach looked sweet, and hoping that a local Tiger snake would not see my foot as worth a bite or two, I moved from the shade of a tree, to the strip threshold. The Warrior touched gently from a three inch hold off and rolled to a stop. I watched him taxi back to pick me up and felt quite privileged to have shared the cockpit with such a talented young man.

He had flown just 4.8 hours dual instruction – not bad at all, even allowing for perfect flying conditions. Afterwards, we discussed his thoughts on being a future Boeing pilot with Air Nauru. From this, it was clear that for Robbie, flying took second place to his island life on Nauru. Good fun, yes – but not a serious option. He said farewell and thanks for everything, and hope to see you if you visit Nauru.

It’s a few years now since we flew together, but one day when I visit Nauru, I know where I can find the Ace of Anabare Bay…

9 Comments

  1. Chris Meelker says:

    I honestly think that its primarily linked to the regularity of training flights for students. When I was 17 I was fortunate enough to win a scholarship from the Air Cadets in Canada to recieve my training and license. Over 6 weeks I flew almost every day, sometimes 3 times a day. My friend Mike, one of our star students, was ready for solo at 4 hours. I think mine took a bit longer, but no more than 6 or 7 (it’s the 10th line in my logbook). Everyone in our group (12 or 15 of us) were certified at the minimum hours.

    I’ve seen a lot of comments about how the cost of flying and a busy life keeps people from doing instructional flights regularly. Unless you’re particularly gifted like my friend Mike or your ace above, the skills you learn on one lesson fade over the week or two or three that go by in between. By the time the next lesson comes half of it has to be devoted to re-learning the last lesson.

    Fly more, learn faster, spend less. Have more fun! Get that license in 50 hours instead of 80 and go for more $100 hamburgers!

    • John in Texas says:

      I agree that student needs frequent lessons. I bought a taildragger to learn in 35 years ago in a town of 30K and lived 1.5 miles as the crow flies from the airport. I took 2-3 lessons a week and soloed in a taildragger in about a month or so. My instructor was about my age (30) and flew a crop duster and C180 and was an X submariner.

      When I took aerobatics I never went without a lesson over a week and often went to two lessons a week. Everything I did before was fresh in my mind. I read the Cole brothers’ book as I took lessons.

      As a long time university professor of freshmen, I’d also say the current youth are not good with paying attention and paying attention to detail. I’d trust very few in a car, let alone a plane.

  2. Jim G says:

    Also, imagine this headline “5 hours of training and then the entire sky to yourself…leads to crash” safety is paramount now.

  3. GGR says:

    I’m a presolo student sitting at about 9.5 hours right now. My instructor says I’ll be ready for solo in just a few more hours.

    I can tell you from my experience what has prevented me from being an “8 hour soloist”. To a large extent I’d say it’s the way my CFI has conducted the training. Basically I show up at the FBO, find my instructor, ask him what we’ll be working on today, he runs through it, and off I go to preflight the plane. There’s no real strategy or plan to it. I know for sure if he had handed me a syllabus or something that I could have used my time between flights to “get ready” for the next flight by reading my handbook on those sections. When we got to pattern work, I felt really overwhelmed because he didn’t really prep me for it much. He’s right out of college, certainly less than 500 hours (probably closer to 300), and I don’t think he’s taught too much. I’m in my 40s, and I’ve taught as an adjunct college professor, and I can tell he didn’t get much preparation in how to teach. Teaching is a purposeful performance art — sort of like acting. It’s as much about getting to know your students (their strengths, weaknesses, and ways of thinking) as it is about conveying information to them. I obviously don’t know much about CFI training, but I’d be willing to bet it doesn’t include enough on HOW to teach.

    Another contributing factor has been weather. I’ve had three separate times when I was supposed to have a 1 hour lesson, and we ended up having to cut it short due to weather.

    Finally, I would say another contributing factor has been how often I was flying. When I started I was going once a week. That’s WAY too long between lessons when you’re learning something as initially complex as flying. When I switched to twice a week, I started picking up speed in how I was learning. I think it should be mandatory to fly at least twice a week presolo. If I could afford it I’d fly three times a week.

  4. ken says:

    I got my PPL and instrument ratings three years ago. My instructor, a former Navy pilot who learned to fly in the 50’s, told me something similar – if you couldn’t solo in __ hr, you were out. (I don’t remember the time but it was less than 20-hr.

    I soloed in 25-hr which I though at the time was too long. However, I took and passed my PPL at exactly 40.5-hr. My instructor told me he never had a student get their PPL that fast. Not sure why I didn’t solo faster. I suspect it was some combination of the syllabus he was told to follow and my ability at the time. Also, most of my instruction was completed in the afternoon, after the sea-breeze kicked in and made all my attempts crosswind landings.

    In general I can think of 2 reasons most students need more time to solo these days. 1)Liability issues for the instructor / school. 2)many private pilot candidates fly too infrequently. These issues don’t apply to military pilot candidates. Also, the military training programs start with the cream of the crop. Many people who take PPL flying lessons would never qualify to get into a military training program.

    One other comment: My grandfather graduated from advanced flying school at Kelly Field in 1926 – his very first assignment after graduation? Flying instructor. Low time instructors is not a recent concept.

    • Rob says:

      Ken, I’m curious how much time was there between getting your PPL and Instrument. Did you immediately start working on your instrument once you had the PPL?

  5. Bob Fry says:

    I soloed in I think 20 hours back in 1975. I was perhaps a bit slow to learn, perhaps my instructor a bit cautious, but I never felt there was anything wrong with soloing at that many hours. I now have 900+ hours, and am building an RV-9A, so have stuck with it, and instructors for BFIs comment I am a good pilot.

    Speed to learn an initial task says little, in my opinion, as to how good you’ll learn and practice the full task later. I noticed in my academic training as an engineer that the ones very quick to learn things often never learn how to really stick with something…they don’t learn persistence, which is the critical attribute to acquiring skill.

    As for why prior students soloed earlier, well, there was a war on, and they could get any number of students who could learn quickly. Those who washed out probably could have been good pilots too, they just weren’t given a chance.

  6. Marcus Staloff says:

    I’m surprised nobody mentioned the obvious.
    When I soloed first in 1951 in a champ it took 11 hours, definitely not a fast learner for those times. The official requirements for initial solo were quite sparse and many soloed prior to 9 hours.
    A major difference between then and now is the clearly spelled out lengthy training elements in the current student pilot knowledge and flight experience sections which are required for solo. I have to dot the i’s and cross the t’s before I can let someone go solo. Many things to accomplish even for the “gifted” student. These days if I can let someone go at 15 hours I’m happy. There you have it, if you’re going to do it “by the book” it will take time. If all you’re looking for is to have a warm feeling that your student is going to make it around the patch in absence of any pop-up issues, sure you can do it sooner; It won’t pass muster with Uncle Sugar though.
    Nevertheless by 1993 the “Ace” was required to jump through all the hoops and apparently was gifted.
    In the other comparison with the earlier (and current) military training and civilian training, another significant difference is mission and motivation. No need for the creme de la creme in the civilian world. In the military world there’s the motivation to not flunk out.

  7. Back in 1962 at the age of 17, I soloed in four hours 20 minutes in a Champ. My first lesson was straight and level, turns, climbs and descents. My second lesson was stalls and spins. My third lesson was all the above again. My fourth lesson was touch and goes. Although most of all of this seemed fairly easy for me, I had a real problem with depth perception which resulted in fairly ungraceful landings. After an initial solo, I spent another three hours trying to find the ground, gently. Then another solo at 7 1/2 hours. Looking back, a huge help was the lack of radios. It was see and avoid and no chatting at the microphone. That accomplished two things for me; keeping a sharp lookout for traffic and not having to think about what to say to that mic. For me, I would estimate that having to deal with communications at that point in my career would easily have doubled the time for me to do anything connected with flying the airplane. Was that four hours 20 minutes too soon for me; no, I felt competent enough at that point. At 7 1/2 hours, I was practicing landings with pretty stiff crosswinds and enjoying every minute of it. And even with modern radios it would’ve been a huge distraction for me to deal with. Of course the Champ had no radios and even the later Cessna’s came with VTR1s and VHT3s that would have been hard for me to master sitting on the ground. I would recommend that anyone contemplating taking flying lessons stay as far away from a control tower as you can possibly get, find A nice quiet airport out in the country and tell the instructor that he has the radio until after you solo. He works for you, not the other way around. I don’t believe that this procedure left me lacking for anything because I have had an airline career, owned about three dozen different airplanes, built airplanes, flown everything from a Gyrocopter to a DC6 and 727’s and 52 years later still flying. My head is still on a swivel and that microphone is in its appropriate place, dead last in the scheme of things. Remember the good old days when you wanted to change lanes with your car. You cleared yourself by looking out the window and checking the mirrors. Now almost everybody flips on the turn signal and just goes for it. Same thing with the radio; instead of looking out the window, just make the required position report and stick your head back in the glass panel. I guess I’m just old and cranky.

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